From The Ethics Alarms Cultural Illiteracy Files: “A Streetcar Naked Desire”

On Wheel of Fortune, an unfortunate contestant named Kevin was confronted with the board above, and had only to name the missing letter to collect his prize.

He guessed “K.”

1.  It is fair to say that he had never heard of the Tennessee Williams drama, easily one of the top ten plays in the classic American theatrical canon.

2. Does this amazing gap in Kevin’s basic education prove that American schools are failing our children and society? No. It shouldn’t fill us with confidence, either.

3. What else does this mean Kevin has never heard of? “Stella!!!”?  Brando? Elia Kazan? The House Un-American Activities Committee? Naming names? Guilt by association? “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”? “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’?

4. What does it say about U.S. society that someone this ignorant of basic culture feels confident going on a nationally televised game show? I think it suggests that not only are too many people ignorant and uneducated, they don’t even know how ignorant and uneducated they are.  Worse yet, it may mean that such people don’t think that there is anything wrong with being ignorant and uneducated.

5. Though Kevin is being widely mocked on social media, I bet there are more adults who wouldn’t be able to solve the puzzle that we would like to think.

6. This is why I started a professional theater company dedicated to producing great American plays that theater companies didn’t produce any more. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” however, was on the list of plays so common, so frequently taught in schools and so well-known that we would never mount them.


[I’m still sick, by the way, and have been sleeping most of the day. This story made me sicker.]


Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, History, U.S. Society

43 responses to “From The Ethics Alarms Cultural Illiteracy Files: “A Streetcar Naked Desire”

  1. Pity he wasn’t able to “rely on the kahndness of strangers.”

  2. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Steve-O-in-NJ

    I think the fact that his mind jumped to “naked” is also indicative of cultural decline. V-girl introduced me to a few gynocentric sci-fi series that I hadn’t heard of in another thread, and I said, quite sincerely, that I believed that if they were adapted for the silver screen that all most male moviegoers would care about was whether the titular characters looked screwable or got naked.

    As for being culturally uneducated, that’s always been a problem, but I think that’s as much the system’s problem as the people’s. Education is test-based or assignment-based, and quite often, when the test is taken or the assignment is completed, or at the latest when the final exam is taken and the course is done, teacher and student alike take it as license to forget the material.

    This goes double if it’s something you won’t use later in life and triple if it’s something you don’t like. Yes, I remember Streetcar – mostly because of the deeply flawed characters and horrible fate of Blanche. It isn’t something I would choose to reread, any more than Ordinary People or Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace or any of those other depressing stories where the major characters are either neurotic or dying. However, the teacher said read, there will be a test on this later, and that test will determine your grade for the quarter, and you know the rest, so I read. I more remember the sweeping heroic literature like the Aeneid and the Morte D’Arthur and some of the Shakespeare stuff, but that’s because I actually enjoyed reading some of that and it’s not always so depressing (even the four great tragedies aren’t as bad as A Separate Peace, which is about someone’s decline and death from cancer) .

    I do like history, especially military history, and I know a lot of it forward and back, but I also know it’s a niche interest that few people outside of academia use later in life. In their day Yorktown, Gettysburg, Midway and so forth were determinative events, but most people couldn’t tell you why and would ask why you cared. If you tried to explain why they would probably just call you pedantic. A fair number probably couldn’t identify those events, and again, would ask why it mattered. Of course you could always say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but that saw is so old and used it has few teeth. I’ve gotten more than a few strange looks after mentioning my annual trip to Reading for WW2 weekend and had a few folks wonder openly why I’d spend a day soaking up the history and photographing reenactors and vehicles (and a few people) from 70+ years ago when I could have been watching football, as well as a few more sneer that “you’re not married, that’s why you can do that. Wait till you get married, then the lawn can’t wait and the boss won’t let you leave her to babysit for a whole day.”

    Honestly, what do most adults talk about now? Their jobs, their kids, and politics (sometimes not very well-informed, but very passionate), and that’s about it. Joe will talk on and on about how he can’t stand his boss and what he’d do if he was in charge, and he might go off as to how Trump is getting it wrong or how Obama got it wrong, but if you try to introduce some historical perspective into the discussion, he’ll either ignore you or tell you to leave it to the books. Mary will spew endless blather about her kids from diapers to dodgeball, but if someone tries to change the subject, she’ll say she doesn’t have time for fancy-pants reading, she’s busy from the first “Mooooom! to the end of the umpteenth retelling of “Frozen.”

    We need to look inwards as well as outwards if we want to improve our literacy and ourselves. If the horse doesn’t want to drink, there’s little point in leading him to the water.

    • Spartan

      Have you read the Sharpe series? I loved every book.

    • I’m not sure I completely agree with the cultural decline thing for coming up with naked. I think it depends on from when you’re trying to compare your cultural ideals to. I would think the 60-70’s stand out much more to me as the “wanton sex and drug” era. I was far too young to live through it (just hitting the half century time) to where I understood it, but that’s the image that time period gives. I would also say most male sci-fi followers (being one myself) enjoy cool special effects, and a good story (throw in things “blowing up”) long before caring if there is a naked female star. If you look at the most popular sci-fi movies and series, they don’t generally have one. It’s the fringe ones that do.

      I agree with the education, and remembering things. In general, you remember the things you want to learn, and the things you like. That happens whether you learn it in school or not. There are general, daily things I’m told about I just don’t have much of a care for (hearing my daughter explain which brand of shoes is which, or different types of makeup, go through one ear and out there other mostly).

      I love history myself, and military history in particular as well, and so I do bring my daughter to see famous sites on our travels. Some of it she follows, some of it she doesn’t. It’s usually not a “girls thing”, especially when they’re 12. But some does sink in here and there.

      You need a better group of friends there *grin* We mostly talk about sports, entertainment/movies/tv, travel, various news stories, before we get into kids and jobs. Politics is a hot item, but really only because of the current circumstances, go back a year and we barely mentioned it outside of specific items.

      • Steve-O-in-NJ

        Those who I consider my friends ARE usually better. It’s acquaintances and family members who are lame. Engaged couples, newlyweds and new parents are the worst.

        • Yes, that’s true, the new parent tends to be totally self-absorbed in their new child. I usually give them a break, and do the nod my head and laugh at the stories, so long as it doesn’t go on too long. *grin*

          • Steve-O-in-NJ

            To a point, but after about half an hour it’s time to change the subject or change your discussion partner. The unfollow button is also your friend, so you don’t have to read inane stuff like “Sooooooo in love!” appended to a kissing photo or “Good morning, Sunshine” appended to the umpteenth picture of their totes adorbs bundle of joy. Yes, yes, I’m just as guilty my own way, I’m sure a lot of social media friends scroll right by my rather large albums and have unfollowed so they don’t have to read a Churchill quote appended to a picture of a Spitfire in flight or “Duty, Honor, Country” in black, gray, and gold letters splashed across “the long gray line.”

    • valkygrrl

      (even the four great tragedies aren’t as bad as A Separate Peace, which is about someone’s decline and death from cancer)

      Did you read A Separate Peace?

      It’s a coming of age story where jealousy causes one boy to accidentally maim another.

  4. Steve

    I made a reference to “the catbird seat” to a young guy last week, an intelligent guy who is an English major and had never heard the term. He had also never heard of James Thurber.

  5. Spartan

    If it makes you feel better, my friends won pub trivia last night. On the other hand, the only literature questions asked for the authors of Fight Club and The DaVinci Code — you know, the great literary works of our age. And we got those wrong.

  6. Other Bill

    Half the world’s below the fiftieth percentile.

  7. I knew and had heard of the title “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Beyond that, I could not have told you if it was a song title or a movie title. I would have said movie title because I feel like I’ve seen a poster somewhere. Of course, I never would have said it was a play. If you would have said “Tennessee Williams”, then I would have said “Ok, it’s a country song title.”

    Poor me, my public education didn’t instill with me that proper history of American stage plays when they were teaching me to solder electronics boards, dissect a fetal pig, complete algebraic functions, or interpreting Shakespeare.

    • The Simpsons had a memorable episode in which Marge played Blanche in the community theater’s production of “Oh Streetcar!”, the musical version of the drama. Ned Flanders played Brando’s role (in movie and play) Stanley Kowalski, whose signature song was “Stella! Stella! Listen to me yell-a! You’re sending me to Hell-a! Stella!”

      Now, you must have heard references to Brando shouting “STELLAAAA!!!” Right?
      And I bet you wouldn’t have guessed “K” either…

      • Now that you mention it, I’ve heard people yell “Stella”…didn’t know where it came from. Always thought it was a Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind reference. Confused it with Rocky yelling “Adrian”.

      • A.M. Golden

        Kevin must have not seen that episode either.

        “New Orleans…home of pirates, drunks and whores
        New Orleans…tacky over-priced novelty stores.
        If you want to go to Hell, better take a trip to the Sodom and Gommorra on the Mississip…”

        That’s how I know “A Streetcar Named Desire”.


    • Sam

      I came from a small town high school but can tell the difference between Tennessee Williams and Tennessee Ernie.

  8. Gregg Wiggins

    I approach this from having been a contestant on “Jeopardy”, a program from the same production company as “Wheel of Fortune”, nearly 30 years ago. At the time the staff — some of whom worked on both shows — told me there was a philosophical difference between the two. To quote Alex Trebek, “Wheel” is a game show, and “Jeopardy” is “the last of the quiz shows.” (Yes, I still remember the conversation well enough to confidently put that in quotes.) But that semantic difference also arguably describes the educational and cultural awareness differences between the programs’ audience and contestant bases.

  9. Chris marschner

    That should have been flub not club Auto correct is driving me crazy.

  10. Mrs. Q

    Maybe him thinking naKed is a good thing. I hear there is a decline in sex amongst millennials. Too much screen time, not enough naked time.

  11. Wait a minute, ‘Streetcar…’ was written by that guy who plays the guitar on Lucy?

  12. crella

    I hope you feel better soon!

  13. Sheldon Cooper didn’t know this, and he”s a genius:

  14. Reminds me of a story I heard years ago about a movie marquee that displayed the current feature: “A.M. Becomes Electra”.

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